In 2011, millions of citizens across the Arab world took to the streets, prompting popular uprisings from Tunis to Cairo which promised to topple autocracies and usher in democratic reforms, notes Marc Lynch, Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University.
For a moment, it looked as if the old Middle Eastern order was coming to an end and a new and better one was taking its place. But things quickly fell apart. Some states collapsed under the pressure and devolved into civil war; others found ways to muddle through and regain control over their societies. Seven years later, those early hopes for a fundamental, positive shift in Middle Eastern politics appear to have been profoundly misplaced, he writes for Foreign Affairs:
The 2011 Arab uprisings did not come out of nowhere; they were the culmination of structural changes that had been developing for a long time. Popular frustration with countries’ stagnant economies and lack of political freedoms had been mounting for at least a decade. The region’s political space had become unified through satellite television, the Internet, and other transnational networks, which allowed protests to spread rapidly from Tunisia to Egypt and then across the entire region. These simultaneous uprisings revealed a great deal about the internal strength of the Arab states: some easily adapted, others barely made it through, and the rest collapsed.
By 2010, little justification remained for the Arab order beyond containing Iran and stifling democratic change, Lynch adds:
But the upheaval did in fact create a new Arab order—just not the one most people expected. Although the Arab uprisings did not result in successful new democracies, they did reshape regional relations. The traditional great powers—Egypt, Iraq, and Syria—are now barely functional states. Wealthy and repressive Gulf countries—Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—are thriving. The proliferation of failed and weakened states has created new opportunities for competition and intervention, favoring new actors and new capabilities. Regional dynamics are no longer determined by formal alliances and conventional conflicts between major states. Instead, power operates through influence peddling and proxy warfare.
“But when states attempt to repress potential challengers by exerting greater control over their societies, they typically only make the situation worse,” notes Lynch, a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the author of The New Arab Wars: Uprisings and Anarchy in the Middle East. “The harder they crack down, the more anger and resentment they generate and the more possibilities for democratic inclusion they foreclose.”